When Suzanne Wingell was diagnosed with a tumour on her spinal cord, she faced the bleak prospect of being paralysed from the neck down.
But the mum-of-three has been saved by surgeons at Sheffield’s Royal Hallamshire Hospital, who successfully removed all of the growth - as well as using an advanced monitoring system which prevents paralysis in patients who otherwise would not be able to move for the rest of their lives.
Suzanne, aged 48, from Norwood, said she ‘wouldn’t be here today’ if medics hadn’t taken away the tumour, which caused her to stumble and lose balance for over two years.
The £30,000 monitoring system - funded by city charity Neurocare - acts as an ‘early warning signal’ to surgeons while they are performing complex spinal cord tumour operations, which can last up to 10 hours.
Using controlled signals directed through electric wires inserted into the patient’s arms, legs and head, the equipment displays a fluctuating blue line if surgeons begin to remove tissue in an area that could lead to spinal cord or nerve damage, preventing further damage and total paralysis.
Suzanne was diagnosed last October. The tumour was at the nape of her neck, and despite not being cancerous was wrapped around the spinal cord, making it potentially deadly.
“Before the operation I couldn’t get my balance at all, and had to lie down all the time,” said Suzanne.
“I just felt like I was on a ship, my balance was so bad. I kept stumbling, but nobody could put it down to anything.”
An MRI scan confirmed she had a tumour on her spinal cord, and an ear, nose and throat specialist referred her to Marcel Ivanov, a consultant neurosurgeon and spinal surgeon at the Royal Hallamshire - the only hospital routinely offering ‘intraoperative neurophysiological monitoring’.
“When I woke up from the surgery I noticed the right side of my body was numb, but I could still feel my legs and arms. It was a fantastic feeling,” added Suzanne, who used to run her own cafe.
“If I hadn’t had the surgery I’d be surprised if I was still alive. I can get around using a walking stick, too. I can’t go too far, but I feel so lucky.
“There are a lot of things I can’t do but it’s made a difference by the fact that I can actually move my limbs.”
Mr Ivanov explained: “The spinal cord is like a power cable through which the brain is communicating with the rest of the body.
“If there is a problem at this level the signal from the brain will not reach the muscles, causing patients to feel weak.
“This, in turn, means the signal from skin and joints will not be received by the brain, causing patients to feel numb or lose sensation.”
The surgeon continued: “Surgery to remove spinal cord tumours is complex and is only able to be performed by big centres with the necessary clinical skills and expertise.
“It used to be enough to save someone’s life from this type of complex operation, but in Sheffield we are pushing the boundaries all the time.
“Without surgery, patients like Suzanne would deteriorate very quickly, but by pioneering this technique we are improving surgical outcomes and the quality of patients’ lives.
“Thanks to the advanced monitoring system we were able to preserve all of Suzanne’s movement and successfully remove all of the tumour, avoiding total paralysis.”
Suzanne added: “The surgeons used to have to go in blind, and had to wait until a patient woke up to see how much movement they had, but not now. Without the machine I could have ended up needing 24-hour care.”
Mr Ivanov was accompanied by a team of neurosurgeons, neurophysiologists, anaesthetists, spinal rehabilitation experts, physiotherapists and oncologists.